04 Dec Seventy
Today, I’ve turned seventy. No longer can I pretend, as I might have in my sixties, that I’m still “middle aged.” (60 is the new 40?) These are my golden years! The actuarial charts tell me that, if I’ve made it this far in decent health, I will probably go the distance. How far might that be? My mom lived to be 93. My dad died at 49 from stomach cancer. I didn’t think much about aging until then.
It took me years to recover from Dad’s sudden death: he was gone so fast—a year from his diagnosis. Mom didn’t divulge that it was terminal until I got her phone call late one spring night, telling me, “I’m so sorry, Ronald, your father died today.” I just couldn’t believe it. After the funeral, I was still in disbelief. For years, I kept imagining that I saw him: distant in a crowd or crossing a busy street just ahead of me or disappearing down an aisle in a department store. A persistent, agonized haunting. All I wanted was to hug him hard, just one more time.
How much time is enough to bid your beloved farewell? Doctors tell Jill, my wife and partner for 25 years, that this coming year they expect her to die from metastatic breast cancer. No way did I imagine I’d be bracing for something like that at 70. We will have been living with this diagnosis for four years. Is that enough time to prepare ourselves for such an ending?
For me, then, this birthday is momentous for the thoroughly wrong reason. The cliché of the “golden years” is that you’re settled, once and for all, in the leisure of your final decade or two. Entering my golden years, however, means recalibrating my world, which is quite unsettling. Hey, I just bought myself a bicycle because I used to be crazy for biking. I want to be crazy for biking again. Also: I’m looking at canoes. I’ve never owned a canoe.
The dream of farm life that Jill and I shared has gone well, really well, but not at all as we expected. Obviously. I mean, we succeeded in bringing this old place back to life and then some. We can’t imagine living anywhere else. Somedays I stand outside and gaze into the distant fields and think, Damn, we did it! But, by the time I’m finished with the last of our farm projects, Jill will be gone.
I’m old enough now—mature enough, I hope—to accept my limits. And my limits, I know, are many. I’ve long told myself that I take nothing for granted, which is to say that I’m willing to face whatever comes my way. Not that I’d have a choice, in any case. But, you know, I want to be brave about it, if possible, and gracious too. Grace means taking a deep breath and moving forward. No self-pity. No anger. No bitterness. A tall order, yes, but worth striving for.
The difference between what I was when my father died and what I am now is vast, thankfully. In spite of my many mistakes and more than a few failures, I would not want to go back and try it all over again. No, I’m happy to be here now, no matter the circumstances. What little wisdom I possess, what resilience I hold, what fortitude I might muster—all of this is hard-won: I’m not about to let it go.
So, in celebration of this new decade, I will light some candles and toast to a future I can’t see clearly, assured that I’m capable of giving fully, loving deeply, and surprising myself with a willingness to free fall for a while because, at this point, what do I have to lose?